How the tiny town of Markleeville survived the terrifying Tamarack Wildfire

It was just after 6:00 p.m. on Friday and an orange sun was setting on the tiny Sierra mountain town of Markleeville, Calif.

Walking down the main street of Highway 89 past the historic buildings and the county courthouse, a surreal and unsettling feeling persisted. The streets were packed with cars and people, which is an uncommon sight for this remote town of 200 residents. But this weekend more than 2,100 long-distance cyclists were staying in town or at the surrounding campsites and cabins for the annual Death Ride bicycle race.

Up ahead fine dinners packed the outdoor tables at a local farm-to-table restaurant, chomping away on their oven-fired pizzas and garden salads. Across the street, motorcycles lined up out from the Cut Throat Bar while patrons inside sucked down their IPAs.

And meanwhile, a raging forest fire was bearing down on town, approach fast and just a few miles away.

When I had arrived in town just a few hours earlier a thin band of smoke passed over Markleeville. I had asked a few locals what was going on but they told me not to worry. Apparently, a small fire had been burning for two weeks in thick backcountry managed by the US Forestry Department. The Tamarack Fire started from a lightning strike on July 4, but was left to burn through the area according to a Tweet posted the next day by federal fire watchers. State and local fire crews also left the blaze to its own devices as it was out of the jurisdiction of CalFire.

As the day progressed though, things began to feel less and less fine. The thin band had turned into a wide tower of thick black smoke. As the afternoon wore on, the setting sun behind added an ominous orange glow to it.

An orange sun sets over our family log cabin in Markleeville, Calif.

I stopped in at the historic General Store to ask if anyone else was worried, and apparently, it wasn’t just me. The local scanners were now buzzing with first responders, calling in the local crews and beginning evacuations of the nearby Grove Hot Springs campground and pools, where I had reservations for a soak in the hot springs for the next hour.

I knew then the evacuation of the town and the 2,100 visiting bicyclists was eminent imminent. So I packed up my stuff and headed out of town in a bathing suit.

Evacuated: The tower of smoke from the Tamarack fire rises above Markleeville, as seen from Hope Valley on my drive out of town.

Fires Move Fast, Unpredictably

The 50-acre fire that had been smoldering for 14 days had burst into a 500-acre fire over the past few hours. By the time I packed up my stuff and drove over the hill to South Lake Tahoe for dinner, the 500-acre fire had grown to 12,000 acres with the town directly in its path.

Images and live-stream videos on social media portrayed in real-time a ravaging fire unfolding. Some reports suggested the town would be overtaken by morning, and for those of us watching the statement didn’t sound like hyperbole.

This shot from the Stone Fly restaurant points directly toward our family cabin. You can see flames behind and to the left of our house.

By 10:40 p.m. I had watched too many videos and scanned too many social media hashtags. I went to bed around the time I saw this on a Facebook Livestream:

A morning break of good news

I woke up around 6:30 a.m. on Saturday to good news. After 12 hours of battling the flames, fire fighters had held off the blaze on all three sides of town. Just a few hundred yards behind our house the fireline held strong, keeping our community safe.

I sent $10 bucks to a photojournalist on Venmo and asked him if he could post a video from our street in exchange.

He did, and it was great.

As of this morning, the map shows a town saved (thank you fire fighters!)…

…but not out of the woods yet.

It’s only July 2021.

Sunday Morning’s fire map shows the path of the fire as it was redirected around Markleeville on both sides.

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